It’s as if I woke up from a dream, or some self-imposed amnesia. It’s not that I didn’t know that Soto Zen is a hierarchy, and patriarchal until just recently. [My friend and teacher Norman Fischer has been instrumental in introducing the women's lineage papers. A noteworthy achievement.]
Clearly the ordained and lay entrusted have the only real status. It is not a status based on actually living the dharma – although many do - but on an ordination that may have happened years ago, or upon acting as shuso for two months. When I first came to Zen, it was clear there was a kind of elite club: the priests. A kind of caste system. At Zen Center, I am told this enactment of hierarchy is very precise – down to where the zafu is placed for certain services.
What triggered my awakening to this after all these years of my being willing to ignore this every entrenched tradition within Soto Zen?
I was given a list of how people should line up to receive the new women’s lineage documents. And there it was: a literal expression of rank. Priests and lay entrusted first and everyone else. One priest – a dear friend – told me that the ordained hold responsibility for our practice. Although this responsibility is taken seriously in most cases, there are many who through questionable ethical behavior, or simple lack of involvement with a sangha, do not hold the practice for me.
Another dear friend told me that it is simply a tradition of honoring the elders and their longevity of practice. I would agree that it is valuable to do so, but the problem is that there are many people who have practiced just as long, or longer. And there are people who are not ordained and who have devoted themselves to service in our sangha for years and years. These people will never receive this kind of honor and attendant privilege.
It’s as if I woke up, and I was shocked. How could I have given so much time, have given so much of myself? I am very egalitarian, and I do not believe there should be a special class of people. Everyone has his or her own role, based on the causes and conditions of her life. There are mothers; there are those doing socially engaged Buddhism; those sitting at the bedside of the dying.
So how do I hold this with integrity? By being so active in my Zen community am I being complicit with a value system that is not my own? Is this an actual moral question, or can I continue giving and receiving love? And ignoring.